Every year,
All over the world,
Opera companies produce and perform Richard Wagner’s monumental four-opera series The Ring Cycle.
Even more companies will include one of the Ring operas on their season.

It’s awesome.
The music envelops you.
The take-aways from the plot are as pertinent and relevant as ever.
Lots of people who don’t think they’ll like it end up loving it.

The Ring Cycle is based on Norse Mythology, the same stuff J.R.R. Tolkein drew from to write his epic Lord of the Rings. And the idea is similar.

There is gold out there, which has been shaped into a ring. It wields total power over the world. Unfortunately, in order to get it, you have to sacrifice love. Oh also, it is cursed; it will eventually lead to your ultimate demise. As people’s and gods’ quests for this ring escalate, the world and the heavens become riddled with destruction. The only way to restore order, we are warned from the get-go, is to return the ring back to where it came from: The Rhine River.

The Ring Cycle is prolific as it is long. The first opera Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) runs approximately 2-½ hours without intermission. The other three–Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Göttterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)–are 5 to 6 hours, including two intermissions, each.

So far, if you’re unfamiliar with anything I just talked about, I may have said some off-putting things. A composer who’s been dead for 100+ years. Words in a language you might not speak. 2-½ hours without intermission. 5-6 hours. A dystopian plot.

I hear you.

But before you talk yourself out of experiencing one of the most influential works of art from all of Western Civilization, let me clear some things up. As I’ve said, there are people who surprise themselves and end up absolutely hooked.

Not to mention, this is the very music that inspired many of us performers to pursue our careers in the first place. (Well, us brass players, at least.)

Brünnhilde wearing the fabled helmet, breastplate, spiked bracelets, wolfskin, and white skirt, and red cape. Her arms are both extended to to the sides but bent at the elbows. Her right hand is extended and left hand his limp. There is a glow behind her.

Myth: I can’t sit for that amount of time.
Fact: You can sit for that amount of time.

The longest one sits in The Ring Cycle is 2-½ hours, for the intermission-less Das Rheingold. Sure, you have to plan your liquid intake and bathroom strategy before settling in. But did you watch any of the Lord of the Rings movies from start to finish? Each of these clocks in at about a half-hour more than Das Rheingold does.

Have you ever watched a baseball game? Flown on a transcontinental flight? I’d be willing to bet you’ve sat for 2-½ hours without realizing you did.

Myth: It’s not for me, I can’t focus for that amount of time.
Fact: This is our antidote to instant gratification.

In an age when we find ourselves increasingly impatient, how many of us seek activities that give us no choice but to wait for the “pay-off”? Yoga. Meditation. Long road-trips.  Sudoku puzzles.

The Ring Cycle is a wonderful opportunity for something like this.

And it’s not just great music and an interesting story. Like so much of classical music, it gives you the chance to both take a break from your world while at the same time increase your understanding of it.

Myth: I don’t speak German, I won’t be able to understand it.
Fact: You’ll be able to understand it.

Not only will you have the translations in front of you (supertitles), but things unravel at a drawn-out pace. The action happens conspicuously and without hurry.

Also, Wagner makes up some of the words, anyway. For instance, when the Rhinemaidens sing “Wallala! Lalaleia! Leialalei! Heia! Heia! Haha!”, these aren’t actual words. Wagner uses this jibberish, for lack of a more formal word, to evoke the sounds of women swimming freely and innocently.

Myth: The plot is too complicated.
Fact: The plot can be rather easy to follow.

One of the reasons The Ring Cycle operas have longer durations than most others is that Wagner doesn’t simply dip your toe into an event; he throws you into the water. You don’t see the maidens of the Rhine River, you swim with them. You don’t watch two people fall in love, their love surrounds you. You don’t observe the end of the world (spoiler alert), you burn up with it.

In all of the operas that follow the opener Das Rheingold, Wagner takes a moment–sometimes an entire scene–to remind the audience about what has happened in the previous opera(s). So between these reminders, a little bit of synopsis-reading before the performance, and the pace that Wagner establishes, you’re good to go.

I should also mention that, with the exception of a men’s chorus in Götterdämmerung, there are never more than ten singers onstage at any point in the Ring Cycle. In fact, there are only eight singers total in the entirety of the third opera, Siegfried. So there isn’t much to keep track of from any one moment.

And finally, there is no mistaking how the characters on stage are feeling. It’s painfully obvious when people are happy, sad, angry, evil, hopeful, smug…seriously, The Ring Cycle has all the feels. And it gives you all the feels, too.

Myth: I’ve included all the myths from conventional wisdom about The Ring Cycle.
Fact: There are probably more, and I hope you Ring-experts enlighten us in the comments.

About Doug Rosenthal

No one told Douglas Rosenthal to give up playing music. Not even his patient siblings, who endured many early-morning practice sessions; even they encouraged their brother to follow his passion. As the years passed, that passion evolved from simply playing music to advocating for music, musicians, and music-lovers. Douglas is based in Washington, DC. He is the Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra/Washington National Opera Orchestra. He currently makes his home on Capitol Hill in DC with a pug named Jake, who serves as a constant reminder to relax, eat well, and sleep plentifully.

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1 thought on “Ring Cycle Mythology

  1. In the early days, people would come to the theatre for the whole cycle and stay for the weekend. There were cots in the lobbies, food for sale, etc. The folks came from very far distances by horse and buggy, etc.,and they did not want to go back quickly. Things like the “Ring Cycle” were just the thing for a long weekend of “music in the big city”. Might be an interesting “throwback” idea?

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